Tipping in Spain & other things to know about restaurants in Spain
Being an American in Spain can be…overwhelming, especially in restaurants. There’s plenty of aspects of Spanish culture that are close enough to American life that it doesn’t involve a learning curve. Restaurants, though, are a whole other animal. Tipping in Spain, getting someone’s attention, when you’re supposed to eat to begin with…they’re all different.
So let’s address some of these differences. It’s going to be hard enough for you to look at a menu in Spanish full of foods that you’ve never tried, at the very least you can show up knowing the etiquette for tipping in Spain!
Do you tip in Spain?
Nope! There is no tipping in Spain, at least in restaurants. Restaurants in Spain have one major difference between American restaurants: they pay their employees a living wage with benefits. This one huge difference really defines a lot of what makes restaurant etiquette in Spain so different for us.
Now, tipping in Spain is only one of these differences, and probably the easiest. It’s real great to save money, especially when a tip isn’t expected (or deserved, let’s be honest about Spanish servers), but there are other differences you need to know about. There are other ways that restaurants in Spain get money out of you, and they might not be the most honest.
Ordering in a restaurant in Spain
First off you need to understand how the atmosphere in a restaurant in Spain is different. In America, we’re used to servers basically waiting on us hand and foot, desperate for a decent tip because that’s the only way they’ll be able to pay rent this month.
Spanish servers, though, are not desperate for your tips. There’s no tipping in Spain, so they’re not really concerned over whether or not you’re happy – they get paid anyways. That being said, you won’t be waited on hand and foot. Basically, you’ll be approached when you first sit down, and if you want any attention after that first moment, you’ll need to flag someone down. Aggressively. They’re busy talking with their coworkers, so you’ll need to try hard.
Eventually, once you get your server’s attention and they’re coming over to you, the hard part is over. You’ve made your decision, and Spanish words are easy as pie to pronounce if you have the word right in front of you, so all you gotta say is quiero “I want” and then say what you want. You could even point to it if that’s easier for you.
Get something to drink
The first thing you’re probably going to want to do is order sangría. That’s what the Spanish drink, right? Well, I mean, yes, the Spanish are famous for it, but it’s not as common as you’d think. Sangría is usually reserved for parties or celebrations, and is shared with everyone at the table. But I will admit, Spanish sangría is better than non-Spanish sangría.
Where drinks are concerned, the Spanish are more like us than anything else. You’ll commonly order una caña, or a beer. To say “beer please” in Spanish, una caña, por favor will do you just fine. If you’re a beer fan, you might be a little disappointed with the beer selection, though. Restaurants in Spain don’t usually carry much variety; you can ask, and you’ll probably have 2 or 3 options, tops.
Wine is similar: even though Spain is famous for their wine, you’ll have to make an effort to get some classy wine if you want the option. Otherwise, wine drinkers will usually drink vino tinto, red wine, or vino blanco, white wine. You can ask for a wine menu if you want, but not every restaurant will have one and you’ll definitely stand out as a tourist.
Even if you just want a glass of water…be careful. Depending which city you’re in, restaurants may not provide tap water, so always make sure you know. Even if your city has clean water, you need to be very specific about ordering a GLASS of water. If you just say agua they’ll give you a bottle of water and charge you for it. A glass of water is free, but only if you ask for it specifically.
Finally, if you head to a bar to get something real to drink, you still might not get the variety that you expect from American bars. Spaniards will still settle for una caña, maybe a couple tapas. The real difference here, though, is cleanup: you don’t! Whenever you’re done with food or napkins, go ahead and drop them on the floor. Yes, seriously. The bar’s employees can regularly be seen sweeping the floor to clean up the mess!
Deals and scams
On the topic of scams, you should generally consider anything that they put on the table as fair game for you to be charged for. Breadsticks, olives…you name it, you need to ask. Even if you don’t touch it, if you don’t ask for it to be taken off the table, you will get charged for it. This is generally understood throughout Spain, so it’s on you to make sure you’re not stuck paying for something you don’t actually want!
On the flip side, though, you can always count on the menú del día, or today’s menu. The menú del día is a special menu only available for lunch (the most important meal of the Spanish day). Ordering on the menú del día, you’ll get an appetizer, entree, and dessert or coffee, all for one price that’s significantly lower than ordering all these things individually. Really, you can’t beat the menú del día deal.
Spanish meal times
Of all the culture shock you’ll experience, getting used to Spanish meal times will probably take the cake (pun 100% intended). The Spanish habit of taking a break from life for hours in the middle of the day seriously affects Spanish meal times, and even if you don’t take a siesta, you still won’t be able to eat at “normal”, non-Spanish meal times.
Now, you will get to take plenty of coffee breaks, as those are an important part of Spanish eating culture, too. You’ll find yourself drinking coffee several times a day, no matter the time. Just a quick café con leche is just what the doctor ordered, paired with a nice tortilla de patatas…mmmmm, there’s nothing better!
Desayuno (breakfast): 7 AM
Us Americans think that breakfast is the most important meal of the day…and a lot of us skip it. Fortunately, the Spanish don’t put a whole lot of weight on breakfast; they might have some toast, orange juice, maybe some fruit in the morning. The belly is still sleeping and you’re going to be late for work (as if Spaniards expect you to be on time), so a light breakfast is all you need.
And, of course, no desayuno is complete without the first coffee of the day. Again, café con leche is the most common, but nobody will stop you from having a cortado or Americano. Whatever means you choose to get caffeine in your system, have at it! Even if you don’t go for breakfast, nobody’s going to tout any health theories at you.
Almuerzo (snack): 10:30 AM
If you didn’t bother with breakfast, you’ll have a chance to get something in your stomach pretty early into the work day. While Americans are deciding on whether or not they want to start eating their lunch, the Spanish admit the way the stomach works – it doesn’t until we do.
Almuerzo is basically another chance for a quick bite and a coffee. I don’t know why we don’t do this in America, I’d love second breakfast! The Spanish and the hobbits are doing life right!
Comida (lunch): 3 PM
I know what you’re thinking: doesn’t comida translate to “meal”? You would be correct. This is a great way that the Spanish language reflects the Spanish culture – it’s almost like lunch is the only meal worth acknowledging in Spain! This is their biggest, most important meal.
This is when people are more likely to get together, order a whole bunch of tapas, and dig in. When there are several people ordering food to share, it’s customary that everyone pools together their cash, no matter who ate how much. And make sure you bring enough cash to pay, because nobody’s going to split a check for you and your card!
Comida is when the Spanish get together with their friends or family and just enjoy life by eating. This, paired with the sobremesa, is how Spaniards spend their long afternoon siesta, if they’re able to.
Sobremesa (social time): during/after lunch
Not every Spaniard has the luxury of a sobremesa (literally, “over the table”), but those who do take the liberty of a generous break time socializing. This is the time to relax, digest, and enjoy the people around you.
Loitering in a restaurant is almost required in Spain, so nobody will bother you like an American server will. Take all the time you want; honestly, I’m surprised more people don’t just walk away from their bill! I’m sure that would happen more often if we loitered that much in America!
No matter the meal or time of day, and even if you’re just getting a café con leche, you won’t be bothered if you decide to sit outside and people-watch for hours on end. They won’t even approach you asking if you want more food, or come to refill your glass of water! Just remember how to ask for the bill in Spanish (la cuenta, por favor) when you’re ready to go and you’re all set.
La merienda (afternoon snack): 5 PM
Even after all these breaks and little snacks, the Spanish get another snack around our early dinner time. The Spanish dinner isn’t for another few hours still, so you’ll have the chance to keep your body going after you’ve finished digesting your comida.
This is your last burst of energy in the work or school day. You might have some sausage with bread, or maybe some chocolate. Whatever little bite you decide works for you.
La cena (dinner): 9PM
It’s finally dinner! While we’re used to settling down after dinner or getting the kids to bed, the Spanish are just getting started. The work day is over, so it’s time for the last meal of the day before going out to la discoteca (the club) until sunrise!
This is, of course, a smaller meal than lunch, and it’s just another way to keep the body going late. You won’t have a menú del día, and probably not tapas unless you have dinner with a group of friends. La cena usually just consists of a smaller entree.
Then, after dinner, let’s go out! Spanish nightlife starts at 10 at the very earliest, and keeps going until the sun comes back up in the morning. But hey, you have an excuse for only sleeping a few hours at night: you have siesta, right?
Fast food in Spain
In America, fast food is the thing that happens when you’re starving and don’t want to think about what you’re going to eat. You can just drive up, order food that you know you like, pay, and be done. It’s easy. It’s not healthy, but your food doesn’t interrupt your busy day.
First of all, this is a fundamental difference between Spanish and American culture. Americans are always busy, always going, always in a rush. Spaniards take their time getting from place to place, aren’t worried about being late, and loiter around for hours just to enjoy the people around them.
So, when we apply this to fast food culture…it’s a bit different.
American culture is all about variety, and you can’t really find that in Spain. We have McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Checkers, Chick-fil-A…honestly, it’s too much. In Spain, if you really want to go the fast food route, there’s much less to think about.
For the most part, your options are Burger King and McDonald’s. You might find a Taco Bell here and there, but not on any major streets or intersections. There’s a big ol’ McDonald’s on the busiest intersection of Gran Vía, Spain’s most famous street, of course, but you’ll pretty much have to get sick of tapas like the rest of us, because your options are limited.
You do get one extra option, though: Taco Bell serves beer! You might be hard pressed to find a location, but if you’re really looking forward to that kind of experience, you can definitely find a fast food joint that offers beer.
Point blank, there aren’t any. Drive-thru food is definitely an American thing, for people who are too busy doing other things to sit down for half an hour and eat. The Spanish don’t understand that, since they spend several hours eating with their loved ones every day. So I’m not quite sure drive-thrus would get much traffic even if they did exist.
I tell ya, there’s nothing like the first time you see a fast food joint in Spain. In America, we’re used to maybe a few people eating inside, but most of the crowd is in the drive-thru line. But in Spain, remember that eating, no matter how you’re doing it, is a social event.
You can basically plan on not finding a seat if you go to a fast food joint. It’ll be packed, since it’s just as popular in Spain as it is in America, but they don’t just sit, eat, and leave. They’ll sit, eat, and not leave for an hour or two. It’s Spain! Half the fun of eating is socializing!
How meals reflect culture
So there you have it. There are some significant differences between the eating cultures of Spain and America, and it all boils down to differences of how people value their time and how much people are paid. Crazy, right?